Thursday 31 December 2015

NUTS4R2's Best Movies of 2015

Best Movies of 2015

Well this has been a mixed bag of a year for movies. I thought it was better but looking over my many cinema trips over the past year, I am forced to conclude that it wasn’t as positive a year for movies as I thought it would be. For the soundtracks in them, it was a fantastic year... but more on that when I do my review of the year’s best scores, coming up in a couple of weeks, which I’m expecting will be looking quite different in comparison to what I have in this list.

I feel I should offer a brief word or two of explanation on certain movies found here, by way of clarification as to what is and isn’t in the list.

All of the films on here came out in the UK in some capacity in 2015. A couple of them only had one or two solitary screenings and one didn’t even play at any cinemas in this country, as far as I know. But this list is, as I feel it should be, based on the date of when they were able to be seen by people in my country fro the first time. So, as an example, I know some people have included Birdman (reviewed here) in their 2015 lists but in London, it was released at the end of December 2014, which is when I saw and reviewed it. If you check back to my review of last year here, you’ll see I included it in my 2014 list. Luckily, I didn't have this problem with High Rise (reviewed here) because, as it turns out, that wouldn’t have made the list anyway.

There are, however, three oddities here. For starters, my number one pick of best movie of the year is from Mexico and it came out over there in 2014. However, as far as I know, it screened only once (the performance I caught at this year’s Raindance Film Festival) and it’s not going to be getting any kind of release or home video distribution in this country anytime soon (according to the producer who I asked after the screening)... although I’m hoping that will change and I believe it may be getting a home video release in the US at some point.

My number three pick this year is a film that screened twice at the London Film Festival and I’m, frankly, hoping it gets some kind of wider release here next year because it’s just an awesome B-movie horror. My number eight pick is kinda interesting because its primary release was via streaming, downloading and DVD/Blu Ray. I understand it had a few screenings in the US but, as far as I remember, it got nothing over here. It's very much a 2015 movie though.

And that’s that. Not much more to say other than how disappointed I was that the new Star Wars movie didn’t make it anywhere near the number one spot on this list. How did that happen? I really wanted it to get right up there but, alas, it didn’t quite do it for me.

So, anyway, here’s my list with links to my reviews. Hope you like and, if you don’t agree, feel free to vent in the comments section. It won’t change my mind about anything but it will promote discussion, right?

20. American Ultra
Well this was just a fun little movie which I would have absolutely put at my number one spot if I’d had still been a teenager. I reckon this is the Heathers equivalent of the current early to late teen generation and I hope they realise this is out there. My review is here.

19. The Theory Of Everything

This biopic of Stephen Hawking is way better than I was expecting and Eddie Redmayne turns in an amazing performance here. Not something I could probably sit through again but certainly something to be admired. My review here.

18. Crimson Peak

Phenomenal film by Guillermo Del Toro that was much less enthusiastically received by the general public at large than I expected it to be. As for myself, I loved it and it’s definitely a movie which needs to be appreciated on a Blu Ray release as soon as possible. My review is here.

17. Paranormal Activity - The Ghost Dimension
Another movie which wasn’t well received but I feel this was a real return to form for the franchise and it even, against my expectations, had a reason in terms of the plot, to be shown in 3D. I’m just a little disappointed that it’s probably also going to be the last in the sequence as I feel there’s still a few more story beats to hit before the whole tale is told. My review here.

16. Krampus
Hooray. A Christmas movie actually gets into my listings this year. Pleased about that. This Christmas horror is more like a bitter and less optimistic version of Gremlins and, supported by a superb score, is a real seasonal confection to be savoured by horror fans who are usually let down by their Christmas horror movies being... well... somewhat rubbish. It’s not straight out horror... it’s not particularly scary for example but, then again, not many horror films are... and it is a little crude in places but it’s certainly entertaining and I’m looking forward to revisiting this one on Blu Ray next December. My review here.

15. Ant-Man
This was a slow burn with me and I probably didn't praise it that highly in my review. However, it grew on me really quickly and I love the way it manages to slot into the current Marvel universe movies. Can’t wait to see the direct sequel in a couple of years. My review here.

14. Tomorrowland
This is another one that people didn’t exactly champion when it came out but it’s a real strong contender, as far as I’m concerned, for being repeated constantly over the Christmas and Easter holidays as a future staple of family entertainment by any TV channel that has it. The trailer is quite misleading and it’s got a lot more going for it than most people would realise, or be able to tell, from its marketing, I suspect. Plus it has the best of Michael Giacchino’s scores for this year. My review here.

13. Maggie
The name Arnold Schwarzenneger and zombies in the same pitch certainly conjures up a specific type of movie in peoples minds and that’s why I think the very small audience who were in attendance at the screening I went to had a couple of walk outs. As it happens, this is a small and dramatic role for Schwarzenneger... not an action epic in any shape of form and, as such, the main star handles himself exactly as I would have expected him to in a straight and somewhat downbeat role of a father trying to accept the fact that his daughter is slowly turning into one of the undead... absolutely magnificently. He really reminds us just how great an actor he can be in this one... not just an action man. My review of this superb movie is here.

12. Mr. Holmes
This one took me by surprise. Thought it was going to be a bit rubbish and dull and, instead, it’s sensational. Especially pleasing is the fictional Holmes at the cinema in the movie, within the fiction of the ageing Holmes watching a film at the cinema based on one of his cases, with his big screen version being played by the same actor who portrayed Holmes himself, decades ago, in Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear. A very special treat which I reviewed here.

11. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Possibly the best of the Mission Impossible films. This one kept me riveted and, although it kinda side steps certain issues about the history of the main character portrayed by Tom Cruise in this franchise, it’s extremely entertaining. My review here.

10. Kingsman - The Secret Service
Of the many 1960s spy movie parodies launched into cinemas this year (Mission Impossible, Mortdecai, The Man From UNCLE, SPECTRE), this is probably the best of them. They may have a problem bringing back a certain character for the sequel but... we shall see what we shall see. Reviewed this one here.

9. Sicario
This is a stunningly beautiful film but it’s all the shades of darkness that you can think of when it comes to content. You will leave the cinema totally depressed, more than likely, and it’s not one I think I could probably sit through again. It is quite devastatingly haunting and powerful, however. Reviewed here.

8. Ned Rifle
Yay! My favourite living director continues to be brilliant with the third installment of his Henry Fool trilogy. Much better than the second movie, Fay Grimm, and a real return to form for the characters. You can read my review of this one here.

7. Star Wars - The Force Awakens
I wasn’t too happy with this when I first saw it but, now that I’ve been to take another look and I’m not constantly waiting for what I thought was going to happen to happen (which it did), I can relax into it a bit and enjoy it more for the homage to the classic films that it is (to an extent). John William’s score for this movie really knocks it out of the park and it’s probably the best score he’s done in quite some time. My review here.

6. Avengers - Age Of Ultron
This was another one I was probably a little over harsh with in my review, after my first watch, but it grew on me fairly quickly after I took a couple of other people to see it. I really enjoyed the hell out of it on subsequent performances and it’s something I’ll probably hold up now and say this is one of the better Marvel movies in recent years. Review here.

5. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
This movie has some special, personal connotations to it for me but, above its special importance in my life, it’s a really great little vampire movie which is, perhaps, more similar to the cinema of Jim Jarmusch than anyone else I can think of right now... although it’s nothing like Jarmusch’s own vampire movie. A nice, gorgeously photographed piece of art that ambles along at its own pace and doesn’t outstay its welcome. Definitely a keeper. Reviewed here.

4. Ghost Theatre
Stupendously cool Hideo Nakata movie about a possessed doll which is like watching Mario Bava on acid in terms of its shot design and use of bright, primary colours. I just hope it gets some kind of release over here next year because, like Crimson Peak, it’s one of those films which is a ‘must own’ on Blu Ray. Reviewed by me here.

3. It Follows
When this came out I was pretty sure that this was going to be my number one movie of the year. A cool American horror movie which is formulaic but which looks, sounds and feels like a classic 1970s US horror film. The fact that it’s not in my number one slot shows that I had at least a slightly better year at the cinema than I at first thought. I reviewed this one here.

2. Carol
Beautiful film about a 1950s lesbian relationship which is lovely to behold and, with its pseudo-Philip Glass score by... um... by Carter Burwell... it sounds as good as it looks. Truly gorgeous movie making with a certain sense of subtlety to it and the kind of thing I would like to see more of playing at our cinemas. My review here.

1. The Incident (El Incidente)
This movie is like watching a drawing by Escher come to life. It’s elliptical, confusing, needs decoding and is, very occasionally, completely impenetrable. Since this has no release in this country and is not likely, as far as I can make out, to get one, I am in somewhat of a quandary because it’s definitely one of those films you need to watch again and start to look out for the bits you missed in the hopes it’ll make more sense in places on subsequent viewings. Still, a truly great film and my number one pick for the year. I reviewed this here.

Tuesday 29 December 2015

Amazing Fantastic Incredible

Ex Sales Sayer

Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir
by Stan Lee and Peter David and Colleen Doran
Simon & Schuster UK Ltd 2015
ISBN: 978-1-4711-5259-7

Well this was a nice surprise present for Christmas... mainly because it wasn’t even a blip on my radar. I didn’t know it existed but I would have jumped on it myself, straight away, if I’d have known about it.  Subtitled ‘A Marvelous Memoir’, Amazing Fantastic Incredible tells the story of one of the giants of modern culture, the man behind so many of the fantastic characters that people have loved since their inception in the early 1960s... Stan Lee. And what’s so wonderful about this autobiography is that it’s done, as it really should always have destined to be, I think... in comic book form. A hardback graphic novel, if you want to get technical about it, although I would have loved it if this had been serialised monthly with cheaper looking covers.

Wait, did I say autobiography? Well it’s co-written, by the looks of it, by the famous Peter David and illustrated quite wonderfully by Colleen Doran. So the question really arises as to what this book actually is because... well it’s kind of shimmering incandescently in a state between autobiography and biography... I think. For the sake of my own sanity and as something to refer to it as for the purpose of this review... I’m going to remind myself that a lot of autobiographies were actually ghostwritten by or with other people and don’t technically count as an autobiographies at all. At least this book is giving all the credit where it’s due and, since Stan so obviously has a strong stamp on what his life story contains and how it plays out here... yeah, I’m going to go with autobiography. ‘nuff said.

So I have to start off here by saying that it’s a wonderful book. There are some things I would have liked to have seen a little more of and I’ll get to those in a minute but one of the main plus points here is that it’s a vastly entertaining read and, luckily, it’s really well written. Stan Lee’s personality and jokey trademark sense of aggrandizement shine through the pages right from the outset as it tells the tale of young Stan Leiber and his home life, growing up poor, and how he joined the company which, decades later, would become Marvel Comics. Also, how he took some time away in the middle of his job there to serve, in a capacity he probably didn’t expect, in the Second World War and of the various challenges of creating and editing some of the characters he’s come up with over the years.

And it’s really warm, fuzzy and lovely... some of it actually brought a tear to my eye... oh, lay off, I’m getting older and the tear ducts open up at the drop of a hat, these days, okay? Also, though, he did manage to surprise me a few times.

The structure is not completely linear, instead he opts to do what many good tale tellers do by highlighting things which lead in to one another and go together which could be many years apart. Obviously this helps to focus on the points being made... rather than completely doggedly following a straight route through the timeline. Lee also accentuates this necessity himself in the context of that structure and it gets him to places where he’s eventually talking to his younger self about his future. It’s pretty good in the way it does this...

... but that’s not what I meant by it managing to surprise me.

What I meant is that there are a few times in here where Stan The Man’s humour got the better of me by setting up a ‘story beat’ to follow a pattern of ‘monologuing’ he might have been using earlier in the strip and then, as you turn the page, pulling the rug out from under you... making you smile and also keeping you interested because you know you can’t always predict when his humour is going to kick in. Like the time he tells of his quick divorce and marriage (into one office for his future wife’s divorce and then into the next office to immediately get married) which had a nice little set up in the style of writing that when you turn the page... oh heck. I’m really not going to spoil it for you here.

Now this book is probably going to come under fire from some quarters, I’m guessing. I was expecting Stan to gloss over certain things and, I suppose, to an extent he does. He does, however give full page (and sometimes more) shout-outs to some of his co-creators over the years, the most famous (and possibly most troublesome in terms of whose side of the story you believe) being Steve Ditko and Jack ‘King’ Kirby. Now, as it happens, I don’t think Lee is trying to make light of any of the serious issues which became problems at certain stages in the history of the company... such as when Steve Ditko parts ways by becoming a ghostly, vanishing figure from his desk. The story about the big argument surrounding the identity of The Green Goblin is a well known one and I’ve certainly heard Stan tell it himself in various interviews... so I don’t think he’s particularly trying to hide anything here... he just doesn’t mention it again because it’s such a well known one, I suspect.

We’ll probably never get to hear about the full stories behind some of these problem issues where people became kind of casualties but one throwaway comment he makes about artists retaining their work and why he wasn’t able to do that did remind me of one thing... Stan Lee is not Marvel Comics. Sure, he is synonymous with them and he’s their mascot but... he is not always guilty for some of the mistakes made in the past. When you become a figurehead, though, sometimes you find yourself caught in the crossfire whether you like it or not. I’ve got no idea myself so I’m just going to shut up about these issues now... other than to say it certainly felt like Stan has done a good job here in giving people their due and there must have been some moments in this memoir (or autobiography as I like to call it), not just dealing with the day in and day out of Marvel, that must have been very painful for him to write and include. However, if you’re going to do a project like this, I think you have to realise there’s stuff you can’t leave out and, thankfully for us, Stan certainly seems to realise this too.

The artwork by Colleen Doran is amazing and when Stan talks about some of the comic books successes, we are presented with reproductions of the covers in question with Stan’s monologue continuing the story in little strategically placed boxes over them. It’s a nice touch, as are the pages which give you a fly on the wall perspective of the recording of the first Merry Marvel Marching Society record. Its great stuff actually and although I never had much of this kind of stuff at the time, it took me straight back to being a kid in the 1970s again because... well, Marvel were never shy on their self promotion were they? We all knew about this fan club stuff, even over here in the UK.

One thing I really would have liked to have seen, since Stan mentions his rivals DC a fair few times, is the inclusion of what was, when I was a kid, one of the most stupendous publications around. The first teaming up of Marvel and DC heroes in the Giant Sized Treasury Edition of Spider-Man VS Superman is not mentioned here... and it’s a shame because I used to love laying that big tome out on the floor as a kid and pouring over the words and pictures as Lois Lane and Mary Jane Watson got themselves into trouble.

The other thing I would have liked more of is actually dates put to incidents. You kind of have to guess a lot about when things were happening and reference your own knowledge of when certain incidents might have slotted into history... so there’s a possibility some readers may have trouble keeping up in certain areas, I think. Especially when, as I said, the narrative structure tends to hop around a bit in terms of the time frame. It doesn’t make the narrative any less compelling, though, so it’s not something that should stop anyone from picking it up.

These minor quibbles aside, I have to say that Amazing Fantastic Incredible is one of the more entertaining books I’ve read in a while and is... exactly what the title says it is. It's also a lovely homage.. or self homage... to one of comic book fandom’s greatly loved figureheads which even takes us right up to date with his cameo appearance in Avengers: Age Of Ultron earlier in the year. A nice thing to own and done in a medium which really captures the spirit of the man... or at the very least the spirit of his public persona. Greatly enjoyed and recommended by this reader, at any rate. What more is there to say?


Saturday 26 December 2015

Doctor Who - The Husbands Of River Song

River Deep, Mountain Who

Doctor Who - The Husbands Of River Song
UK Airdate: 25th December 2015

Warning: Minor spoilers in here, I guess.

Well this is probably going to be one of my shortest Doctor Who reviews ever. Not because it’s the Christmas holidays and I need to be getting on with other stuff... I mean... well I probably do but this blog is my retreat and it always gets top priority from me, so I’ll write for as long as I need.

Nope, the reason is because there’s nothing much to complain about, again, with this episode of the show. It’s a pretty solid episode and, unlike a few over the past few years (and last year's also had this quality to it), it’s a bit of a romp. That being said, there’s also nothing much outstanding in the content of the episode either so... you know... liked it a lot and there’s just not much to say about it.

But... you know... I do have a little bit to say about it. ;-)

Okay, so there is some good stuff here and, maybe, just one bad thing but only bad because I wasn’t fully understanding the implications of it, I guess. Now, I hope you all don’t consider this as a major spoiler but, if you’ve got this far on your Doctor Who watching this shouldn’t come as any surprise to you. River Song is The Doctor’s Wife. She is also the daughter of two of his most cherished companions but I won’t say who here just in case people are only jumping on now. The first time the Doctor meets her, in David Tennant form in Silence In The Library, she sacrifices her life in the second part of the story to save The Doctor. After that, The Doctor continues to meet her out of order in time and space, and sometimes quite backwards, as they forge a relationship... one she’s already lived out over the years she has known The Doctor in terms of his first encounter, in his future of the timeline as we currently follow it.

This episode, for River, is set fairly soon after she sees her parents whisked away by the Weeping Angels and Matt Smith’s incarnation loses his two companions forever in The Angels Take Manhattan (reviewed here), although it’s not the last time The Doctor saw her... I’ll get to that in a minute or two.

This is, as I said earlier, a romp with one of River’s husbands in this being a diamond, lodged as shrapnel in the head of a cybernetic dictator of a planet and, once said head has been ‘lifted’ from the owner (in full working and noisy order) it’s all about getting the head back (for the malevalently pursuing body) while exploring how The Doctor and River get on in terms of Peter Capaldi’s current incarnation personality. As it happens, since River knows that a Timelord can’t regenerate for more than twelve incarnations, she has no idea that this Capaldi version is The Doctor. Of course, she doesn’t know what we, the viewers know, that The Doctor has had ‘a thing’ happen at the end of his last regular Matt Smith episode which allows him to carry on regenerating so, when The Doctor gets roped into Professor Song’s current shenanigans, she really doesn’t know who he is and, despite The Doctor constantly trying to make her realise who he is, doesn’t find out until pretty near the end of the story. This, of course makes for lots of humorous shenanigans as The Doctor tries and fails to spell out the obvious while River takes him for an idiot who needs to have things explained to him and, also, confessing a lot of stuff she certainly wouldn’t have told The Doctor if she knew who he was.

The best of these scenes for me was the ‘first entry to the TARDIS’ scene which writer Moffat has been trying to get around being similar to every other time a new companion 'does it' in the last 50 plus years of the show. He’s taken a lot of side swipes at it in recent years but this is one of the best because it’s The Doctor having to pretend it’s his first time entering a TARDIS... and he hams it up with relish and does it just as he’d like to hear it done, with a lot of sarcasm and at great length. Capaldi performs it beautifully, the direction of the scene and the way the camera captures it is beautiful and, of course, the irony is completely lost on River... which gives it a little extra punch. Nice stuff and certainly the best bit of the episode I reckon.

There’s also the ‘almost bad thing’ which is the poignant, almost downer of the ending where we realise that this is ‘the last night’ that River and The Doctor are together before he sends her back with a sonic screwdriver to meet his younger self (where she dies)... the punchline to that being that, on the planet where they are, night last for over two decades. So they have plenty of time to fix some of the unfortunate revelations about River’s perception of The Doctor’s character, revealed as the episode continues on. Now I found this last scene a little bit of a downer but also confusing because... well... if you all can remember back to the Matt Smith episode, The Name Of The Doctor (reviewed here) you’ll also know that she’s also met him again ‘after’ her death. Something which isn’t explained after her personality was downloaded into the library via the sonic screwdriver The Doctor gave her (apparently in this very episode I’m reviewing now) but which certainly means, as far as I’m concerned, that she can come back anytime in the series. Of course, since Moffat has left Orson Pink completely dangling as a loose end, it certainly doesn’t mean River will return again but... well... River Song’s a popular character. We’d all love to see her back again as soon as possible, I imagine. Preferably with The Paternoster Gang in tow but... that’s another issue.

But that’s about it from me on this one. Not much to say. Enjoyed it. A nice dessert to what has been one of the best series of Doctor Who in quite some time so... yeah... The Husbands Of River Song is a nice little story in the continuing history of the show. Nothing more. Nothing less. And as for next year... we shall see what we shall see, I guess.

Thursday 24 December 2015

Merry Christmas 2015


Merry Christmas and a
Happy New Year to you!

This year has certainly been an interesting one. Something wonderful happened to me which I can’t reveal for a long time yet but... one day I will get to shout out about it a bit, I’m hoping.

On the other hand, my work life has been atrocious in terms of my country’s government not investing in the right services and industries to give people the tools they need to survive in life. How safe any jobs that are perceived by anyone with a sane mind as 'essential', is in serious question over here in the UK at the moment. So pretty much everyone I know is just always looking over their shoulder, waiting to catch a glimpse of an uncertain future.

However, this blog stays my safe haven, I’m pleased to say. Once again I didn’t get half of the films and books I wanted to get reviewed on here seen to. If you read last year’s Christmas post I could pretty much just list exactly what I was expecting for this last year as possibly coming around this year. Who knows? This didn’t stop me looking at some really interesting stuff, however, and I really hope you found at least some of the reviews either unusual, helpful, enlightening or, at the very least, entertaining.

And that’s basically it I think. Please take a look at my Annual Cryptic Movie Quiz on the post before this (just click here) as I know there are some people out there who really enjoy puzzling over them on their Christmas break and, you never know, you may be one of them. Answers and winner will be announced sometime in early 2016. However, if you keep checking in the comments section, you may find I post the odd extra clue every now and then.

And please stop back here again for a look at my review... good, bad or indifferent... of this year’s new Doctor Who Christmas Day Special, The Husbands Of River Song, in a couple of days. They’ll probably be a Best Movies Of 2015 list at some point soon so that may be worth a look too... the films you may expect to be on there might not even have made the cut this year.

Thank you all very much for reading and continuing to support this blog. I hope Santa brings everyone exactly what they deserve this Christmas and that everyone has a better year in 2016 than this last one has been... whether it was a good or bad year. I will leave you with this famous ‘almost salutation’ from Tiny Tim in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, which I think sums up the end of this year very well.

"May The Force Be With You All... and to all a Good Night."

Tuesday 22 December 2015

NUTS4R2 Cryptic Movie Quiz

NUTS4R2s Cryptic Movie Quiz Christmas 2015

It’s that time again.

Since last years extra cryptic quiz seemed so popular among my readers, I thought I’d give it another go this year.

If you look at the grid above you’ll see spaces for 16 movie titles running horizontally and below are the cryptic clues to help you work out what these non-Christmas movie titles are. To help you out, I’ve filled in a line of letters downwards spelling out Season’s Greetings... so you have a letter in its correct position for each of the titles (a fair few of which are from movies released this year). Click on the grid to see a larger version of it.

I’ll probably award a small, strange or possibly customised prize (if I know you from Twitter) to the person with the most correct answers this year too... a NUTS4R2 first.

Email your answers to me at and you have until the end of New Year’s Day (January 1st 2016) to get your entries in. A few days after that, I’ll stick up the name of the winner (or winners if it’s a tie), along with all the answers, here on my blog.

By way of an example, here’s a question from last year’s quiz, followed by the answer.

Example question: You keep banging on about a third of a dog!

Example answer: You bang on a drum. A famous Hollywood dog star was Rin Tin Tin... so a third of that could be Tin. Therefore, the answer is The Tin Drum.

If you keep checking back at the comments section, I may put the odd clue on every now and again to help you.

Full marks are rarely scored so if you’re feeling a bit stuck, there’s still everything to play for. Send me what you've got anyway.

Hope you enjoy playing and, above all, have fun.

The Questions.

1.  The missing planet.

2.  The fifth letter of the alphabet has its superhero costume cliché removed.

3.  A sudden, nervous muscular spasm aided by a really great external skeleton, renting a room with the precious metal that it’s married.

4. Massive soundtrack to accompany a lift (US: elevator) on its journey.

5.  Yesterday Air, Today Sea...

6.  Bending her to your will... but not quite.

7.  A Macauly Caulkin movie interrupts a young lady’s evening stroll.

8.  Put your BFG on the floor.

9.  The last curve of a backside looks just like a planet.

10. Ten down from Wolverine, Cyclops, Ice Man and the others.
Addendum: You know, depending on how you visualise things and count, some people might see this as "Nine down"... but whichever way you count it, "it's all for you".

11. More than casual acquaintance of the United Nations loses life.

12. Thinner was a great book by Stephen King but... what King book came out after it?

13. Go back in your den with a firearm.

14. The tip of a candle protruding from the top of the toilet.

15. The father of the satchel was stolen by this character.

16. The dirt from this Apple Maciffied piece of Real Estate.

Sunday 20 December 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Forced Entry

Star Wars - Episode VII - The Force Awakens
2015 USA
Directed by J. J. Abrams
UK cinema release print.

I think I’ve kept this review spoiler free... which means I’m going to have to skirt around some issues here but, this is such a high profile film that, even if I put a spoiler warning like I normally do if there are spoilers here, I don’t think people will be all that into it. In fact, I had a much better title for this review but I figured the double meaning of it might enrage fans of the series if they figured it out before they saw the movie.

So... hmm... okay. Not really sure where to start with this one. I find Abrams a bit hit and miss as a director and there’s some good stuff in this movie but... there’s also some really bad stuff here too. If you’re looking for a really bright and breezy, fan positive rave about how good the new Star Wars movie is then, I’m sorry, as much as I love the original trilogy, I’m not going to let that get in the way of me being honest here. If that’s the kind of super happy review that you want then... this isn’t the review you’re looking for. Move along.

The main problem, first and foremost for me with this movie is... it doesn’t really feel too much like an original Star Wars movie. It does have some outstanding Star Wars moments, to be sure, but the whole thing looks like it’s being unnecessarily visually complicated to tell what, after all, is a very simple and repetitive story. This film feels more like it’s adhering to the 'special edition' makeover versions of the original trilogy rather than harkening back to the relative (it was mind blowing in its day) simplicity of the original cinema releases. Contrary to what I should be saying here, and this is really going to blow my credibility for most of you reading this, I really loved The Phantom Menace and think that particular prequel did what this movie is trying to do much better.

However, I don’t want that to dissuade from the fact that there are some really great things about this installment in the franchise so... let me cover the good stuff first.

Daisy Ridley (whose great uncle was Arnold Ridley, Private Fraser in Dad’s Army and writer of The Ghost Train), John Boyega and Oscar Isaac... as Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron... are all absolutely fantastic in this. All turn in outstanding performances and they all have some great writing behind them. Even BB-8, the new droid of fame, is pretty amazing... there’s a particular moment John Boyega shares with the droid while Daisy Ridley’s stuck under the floorboards of the Falcon tinkering with the workings that is truly outstanding.

Finn is an extremely likeable character and the chemistry he shares with Rey and Poe is amazing. The scene where he meets Rey and there’s a whole ‘modern feminism’ vibe going on with a scene I shall refer to only as the "take my hand" sequence, is something which a lot of people are going to love. I’m not one hundred percent sure if it was actually trying to hit a feminist beat but it does it so well and triumphantly that you are going to be immediately on the side of the writers from this moment in the film on. What its basic function is, though, is to set up a relationship where one of the characters gains credibility and acceptance/welcome from another character and it does it very quickly in a kind of visual shorthand that really works. People are going to remember this stuff for a long time.

I was less impressed with Adam Driver’s performance as Kilo Ren, to be honest, but he seems pretty popular with everyone else so I think he must be a good casting decision, even if I think his character and the actions performed by that character are an unbelievable cinematic and literature cliché. Still, nothing wrong with that, the Star Wars films are based on homage and one of the original intentions when Lucas was involved was that it tell a story of three generations of heros like in the epic Cinerama movie How The West Was Won. That film is split up into segments which means that characters who were the heroes in one sequence died or went off and give rise to new heroes in the following sections and that’s always been in the back of my mind when it comes to approaching the way I watch the prequels and sequels.

Now here’s where I do my strange verbal dance and try and talk about certain things for the benefit of people who have already seen this movie while absolutely not saying what those things are. So here goes...

In the first film of each trilogy, something happens in the last section of the movie which makes good dramatic sense and, if you were going to try and make a Star Warsy style movie, it’s a good bet that you’d want to continue that dramatic set up in the first part of a new trilogy. So about a year and a half ago I figured out something specifically epic was going to happen in this one and I even, as it happened, nailed the character who was going to be involved in this incident. At some point before the film opened I widened my scope a little on the specific character because I didn’t think the director/writers would have the nerve to do this thing in the new movie to this character but, as I watched the various actors doing the pre-publicity tours and heard little snatches... I mostly avoided this stuff like the plague... something made me realise that this thing was definitely going to happen after all.

And this is where one of the bad things comes for me and where, I’m afraid, I hate being right. I don’t think this incident was handled particularly well but I think it’s going ot be the thing that this movie is most going to be remembered for... okay, it’ll also be remembered for Daisy Ridley’s Rey character for sure... and so I wish this moment hadn’t been quite so badly telegraphed throughout the entire movie either. I was actually just waiting for this thing to happen and maybe that spoiled my enjoyment of it somewhat.

See, file this under bad stuff but... there are really no big surprises in this film. There are two revelations set up and one of them could have gone either way but, seriously, the writers chose the most obvious solution to one of them and you’ll find that one out very early on in the movie, the first time you see Snoke, the master villain behind the scenes (in another holographic moment reminiscent of the title character in The Wizard Of Oz). The other revelation to be had... well, let’s just say I don’t know why Abrams and co have left this to be revealed in another film. Seriously, we all got enraged when it was so obvious before the movie even opened that Benedict Cumberbatch was playing Khan in Abram’s Star Trek Into Darkness... why he’s teasing out the identity of one of the characters here and carrying it into one of the following movies is a total mystery to me. I won’t reveal the obvious here but... everyone already knows, why hide it.

Okay, so we also have some returning cast and characters from the original trilogy and all I will say is that Harrison Ford as Han Solo totally nails it again this time around. I criticised him quite badly on the performance he put in on Return Of The Jedi but here he’s almost perfect. And when he isn’t perfect, it’s not his fault. There is a tremendously fun scene involving a 'monster vs prey' scene on board a ship which is, frankly, somewhat over the top for a Star Wars movie, I felt. I appreciate the filmmakers need to get new ideas in there and keep pushing the visual syntax of the universe of the movies forward but this just felt like too much. Ford handles it brilliantly though, so there’s that.

The other thing that bugged me a little about Solo in this one was his relationship with Chewbacca. The two have been friends and colleagues in the timeline of the Star Wars universe for how long? At least 40 years of history between the two characters, maybe more? And this is the first time Han has ever used Chewie’s bowcaster? In all their time together? Seriously? You expect us to believe this rubbish? Again, Ford plays it beautifully in some nice comic moments but the credibility of those moments is completely lost in the logic of the situation. Also, the bowcaster was a big, heavy weapon that you always imagined only something as big as a wookie would be able to use... here it’s revealed it's almost as light as a regular weapon and it kind of diminishes the look and design of the prop when used in this context too, in my opinion.

And talking about historic props... there’s the return of a major one here which kind of beggars belief in terms of conitnuity with the last trilogy but, what the heck, I guess they may have a stab at clearing that up in a future film... I hope.

So before I get to my last bad thing... there was one thing which left me puzzled and that is in terms of music. Once again John Williams delivers a brilliant score and, listening to it in the context of the movie (I don’t have it as a stand alone yet... come on Christmas) it’s easily one of his best scores of the series, harkening back to the musical soundscape of the original trilogy rather than the prequel trilogy. That’s a double edged sword in some cases because there are some musical moments in here which, while I know thay must have been re-recorded, sound so close to the original orchestration and timings for other scenes they’ve been used in before, that they sound almost needle dropped in. That being said, the puzzling thing happens when we get our very first glimpse of the Millennium Falcon in this movie, in a wonderfully constructed set up sequence. As soon as we see the Falcon though, it’s accompanied by the Death Star leitmotif from the first movie. What? That popped me straight out of the movie as my mind boggled as to why Williams had chosen to use this at this point in the score. My only guess is that it features prominently in the cue entitle Ben’s Death and Tie Fighter Attack on the original 1977 Star Wars album, which accompanied the scene where the Falcon is fleeing the Death Star... a case of musical association by proximity rather than actual literal translation of the theme I guess. It’s still a nice moment and it didn’t diminish my appreciation of the scene too much, I suppose.

Okay, last bad thing... this movie doesn’t have a Star Wars ending. All the other “first movie in the trilogy” films ended with a celebration/closure, no matter what had happened to various characters throughout the movie... and even the cliffhanger chapters like The Empire Strikes Back left the heroes poised to go on the next bit of the quest. Here, the film should definitely have finished where Rey and her companions in the scene (I don’t want to say who) go off in the Falcon but, curiously, we get a little tagged on ending to the movie which feels inconsistent with the series as a whole. I know, in some ways, if they didn’t include something of this nature here, the fans would be out hunting for Abram’s blood (and I include myself as a great admirer of the Star Wars movies, for sure). At the end here, though, we have a scene which feels like it best belongs coming half an hour or so into Episode VIII although, to be fair, the character arcs for everyone are so easy to see here that, well, I can’t see that there will be any surprises there either so, what the hell, just have that final scene in this one, I suppose. Felt tacked on to the end kinda haphazardly though so... yeah, could really have done without it and would have preferred to wait patiently for another few years instead. But, you know, hindsight is a marvellous thing etc.

And that’s that. I kind of regret the fact, almost, that I now have to take various people I promised, to see this movie in the next week or two. Normally when I see a Star Wars movie I can’t wait to get back in te cinema and see it again. This one... I would be quite happy to wait until the Blu Ray release and see if it holds up better the second time through. I usually leave the cinema with a feel good vibe after Star Wars... I just felt kind of numb and depressed for a couple of hours after seeing this one. That being said, there’s some really great stuff in this one and, like The Avengers - Age Of Ultron (reviewed here), I’m really hoping it will grow on me after repeated viewings. Some films do have that power and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will be the case with this one.

So the only final word I’m going to have here, I think is... if they writers don’t bring Billy Dee Williams back as Lando Calrissian in the next installment, they are really missing a trick. They’ll really need him to make the story beats work, I think.

Star Wars at NUTS4R2

 Episode 1: The Phantom Menace 

Episode 2: Attack Of The Clones

Episode 3: Revenge Of The Sith 


Rogue One 

Episode 4: A New Hope

Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back

Episode 6: Return Of The Jedi 

Episode 7: The Force Awakens 

Episode 8:  The Last Jedi

Episode 9: The Rise Of Skywalker

Friday 18 December 2015

Moving Images

Moving Images

Warning: Some major spoilers on numbers 10, 7, 6, 5

Get the hankies out!

You know, I rarely do 'list articles' but I thought, during the lead in to Christmas, I’d do at least one to break up the usual format a bit and this one has been on my mind to assemble for a couple of years now. Film is often seen by many as an engaging and encapsulating experience. Perhaps director Sam Fuller says it the best, or at least the most credibly, in his cameo appearance in Jean-Luc Godard’s French new wave movie Pierrot Le Fou, when questioned by a character on the nature of cinema...

“Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word . . . emotion.”

Yeah, that’s right, emotion.

Now, while I don’t agree that all film or television has to engage us in this capacity, I’m no different than the next audience member when it comes to being caught up in the emotions of various moving image presentations and so I thought I’d compile a list of some of the moments in both cinema and television that I have personally found the most moving, over the years. Of course, it’s a completely subjective list and I’m sure that there are many more I’ve got filed away in the back of my head which I’ve forgotten to include here... so maybe I’ll do a follow up sometime. I wasn’t originally going to include any television moments on here, actually, but the one I have included leaves me such a shivering, emotional wreck every time I see it that, well, there’s just no way I could leave it off this list. I’ve actually put that in on the number two spot because it’s so powerful... to me at least.

I realise, of course, that one person’s emotional trigger is another person’s lack of the same and that a few, or even all, of these choices may leave some of you puzzled and scratching your heads. That’s okay... that’s all part of the fun and the discovery of the fact that we really are all different and we all respond and react to things in a completely different manner to everyone else. So please, if you have some specific scenes/sequences of moments of film or TV which absolutely move you then... well... it would be great if you could tell me and my readers about them in the comments section below. It’s nice to know and share this stuff.

So that’s that. Nine of these ten moments have links to an accompanying clip I found on YouTube, so click away and watch the moment and, hopefully, you'll remember to come back to look at the next "moment" in this article. Here are my top ten (for now) moving movie/TV moments... in ascending order.

10. Tracey’s Return in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
What’s this? A Bond movie on a list of most moving moments? Yeah, okay, give me a break... it’s easily the best made and emotionally mature Bond movie in the history of the series. I’m not going to cite the end sequence where Bond and Teresa (aka Tracey) leave their wedding but, before they reach their honeymoon destination, the love of Bond’s life is gunned down in a hail of machine gun fire. Instead, it’s the moment where Bond has just escaped Blofeld’s fortress on Piz Gloria for the first time that I’d like to highlight here because it shows Bond at his most vulnerable and reliant on the so-called fairer sex to complete his world saving mission. George Lazenby’s 007 has escaped his imprisonment but he can’t escape Blofelds goons, who are tracking him and stopping him getting any assistance. Bond is desperate. He has absolutely no way of escaping his predicament and no way out... and then Diana Rigg’s Countess Tereza skates into the shot. She has been looking for Bond and she is here when he needs her most... with her car. She effectively rescues him and it’s not long after this emotional moment, where we see a down on his luck Bond, that he proposes to her. Sorry, this is the only one of these entries where I couldn’t find the accompanying clip on the internet... my apologies. Watch the movie... it's cool.

9. Rachel confronts Deckard from Blade Runner
This is the scene that starts with my favourite moment of the movie, where Deckard is surprised by Rachel in the lift up to his apartment and he is so shaken by her presence that he drops his key and can barely get to open his front door because of it. Once inside she confronts Deckard about what he learned about her in the Tyrell interrogation scene and we watch Deckard unsuccessfully try to hide from her the fact that she’s a replicant, before hitting her with the brutal truth. Rachel flees the apartment while Deckard goes to fix her a drink. Here’s a low quality clip from youtube...

8. Death Of A Soldier from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Towards the end of Leone’s epic feature, Clint Eastwood’s ‘The Good’ comes across a dying confederate soldier in the aftermath of a battle. Ennio Morricone’s touching score comes into its own here as Eastwood, realising the soldier doesn’t have long to live, lays his coat on him to keep him warm and takes the cigarette from his own mouth, holding it to the soldier’s mouth so he can have a final smoke. Eastwood looks round as he is distracted by the sound of a horse... when he looks back the soldier is already dead. He takes back his cigar, grabs a poncho by the soldier and is on his way. Eastwood does this beautifully... his almost unchanging face deliberately underplaying the emotion which is bolstered by the amazing score, making this one of the most haunting moments in a Leone western.

7. The Children Return from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom 
Yeah. So the fights and chases are all played out and the slave children have been freed from the Thuggee temple. Our three heroes - Indy, Willie and Short Round - return to the village where they took on their unplanned mission. There’s a moment when they are standing at the threshold of the village and all the children come running into the village from behind them, John Williams score swelling as we see the reaction shots of the various villagers who now have their young ‘uns restored to them. I break down in tears every time I see this scene (even out of context when revisiting that clip for the purposes of this list... like many of these here, as it happens). The special moment starts about thirty seconds into this long section I found on You Tube and goes on for about a minute and a half...

6. The Return Home from It’s A Wonderful Life
Okay... possibly one of the greatest American movies ever made but, certainly, the greatest Christmas movie ever made. The final scene of It’s A Wonderful life is one of those great tension-release moments. After he’s about to kill himself, James Stewart’s George Bailey character is visited by his guardian angel Clarence, played delightfully by Henry Travers. After Clarence shows George what life would have been like if he’d never had lived, George once more embraces life and returns home to his family to face some serious jail time for some missing money which he doesn’t realise the bad guy of the piece has stolen from his company. However, practically the whole town is waiting for him and they have donated all the missing money and more, making him realise just how many friends he has to come to his aid in times of trouble. We hear a ringing on the foley and Bailey’s daughter reminds him, and the audience, that “every time a bell rings, another angel gets its wings.” As the saying goes... not a dry eye in the house. There’s the whole long sequence here on youtube... ... skip to the end.

5. Confronting the Jaguar Shark from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
This beautiful movie by Wes Anderson tells of the fictional equivalent of Jacques Cousteau, documentary film-maker Steve Zissou, and his quest to find and kill the bizarre ‘Jaguar Shark’ that ended his friend’s life. On the way, another friend who may or may not have been his son (only two characters in this movie know the truth of the situation, and Bill Murray’s Steve isn’t one of them), is killed in an accident and after the funeral, at the wake on Steve’s boat, the trail of the Jaguar Shark gets warm again. Steve and an absolute load of his friends and crew, most played by quite famous actors and actresses, load into his mini submarine in search of the shark. However, once he’s finally caught up with his aquatic nemesis, he realises he really doesn’t want to kill such a beautiful creature anymore. Some kind soul has put the clip on youtube here...

4. Revolution scene from A Fistful Of Dynamite (aka Duck You Sucker aka Giù la Testa)
Well this film is Leone’s masterpiece as far as I’m concerned... even if the IRA theme is kind of an anachronism bearing in mind the time this movie is set in. James Coburn’s character John has escaped betrayal at the hands of his IRA chums... something that is constantly referred back to throughout the course of the movie through a series of beautifully scored, moving flashbacks which reveal just a little more of why he is who he is, as the movie progresses. In the West, he has sneakily enlisted the aid of Mexican bandit Juan, played by Rod Steiger, without him even realising at first, to try and instigate another ‘glorious revolution’. John is the educated one and Juan is the stupid peasant who doesn’t realise what’s going on... or does he? There’s a wonderfully moving scene where Juan explains to John just what a revolution really is. The grim poignancy of this is backed up later in the film when Juan’s whole family have been wiped out by the bad guys (who are a curious metaphor for Nazi Germany in a Western).

“I know what I am talking about when I am talking about the revolutions. The people who read the books go to the people who can't read the books, the poor people, and say, "We have to have a change." So, the poor people make the change, ah? And then, the people who read the books, they all sit around the big polished tables, and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat, eh? But what has happened to the poor people? They're dead! That's your revolution. Shhh... So, please, don't tell me about revolutions! And what happens afterwards? The same fucking thing starts all over again!”

Once again. Morricone’s score plays in the background to enhance the already high emotions of the scene. This clip is here...

3. Owen’s Coin Collection scene from Throw Momma From The Train
Billy Crystal plays Larry and Danny DeVito plays the simple-minded Owen in this scene which takes you totally by surprise about half way through it. Owen pesters the long suffering Larry to look at his coin collection and, when he does, he finds it comprises of a bunch of worthless nickels, quarters and pennies. However, when he digs a little deeper as to why Owen has kept these exact coins, he finds that they were all coins given to him in change from when his long dead father used to take him to shows or baseball games. The scene suddenly switches from comedy to a poignant moment of the loss of a loved one. Unbearably emotional. There’s a clip of it here...

2. Pretty much all of The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe - Doctor Who 2011 Christmas Special
I can’t tell you how much of an emotional wreck this leaves me. After the first watch, the end is pretty devastating but, once you watch it again and know what’s coming, the whole thing will keep you crying all the way through, most probably. This episode must have so many triggers for me... I can’t even listen to the soundtrack to it on my iPod on the bus every Christmas without breaking down into badly hidden tears. Don’t watch this episode if you are with people you don’t want seeing you cry.
Here’s one of many little touching moments throughout the whole episode, which is set during World War Two...

1. Bretodeau’s Memory Box from Amélie (aka Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain)
Wow. Amélie is another of those 'greatest movies ever made' and it’s a film full of moving moments from start to finish. A work of joyous wonder and surreal, dreamlike moments. There are so many bits I could have chosen to represent this movie but I’ve chosen the scene where Amélie has tracked down the owner of a box of childhood possessions, hidden behind the walls of the apartment she now lives in, over 40 years prior to her accidental discovery of said box. She arranges a stealthy way to return this 'little boy's' box to him as he approaches his 50th birthday, without appearing to be involved in the reconciliation between the former owner and the memories that the contents of this hidden treasure invoke in him. I’ve chosen this moment because it’s always the first of many bits in the movie where my mouth starts quivering and my eyes start leaking profusely. Some kind soul has provided a fairly low quality youtube clip of this here...

And that’s it for my short collection of moving moments from the world of the moving images. I hope you enjoyed this little voyage among what I feel are some of the emotional highlights of this particular art form over the years. It even had a Christmas movie in there to give it a seasonal feel. Two if you take into account part of the time frame of the Bond film.

Please come back here on Sunday/Monday for my review, I hope, of the new Star Wars movie and again on Tuesday for this year’s edition of my fiendishly puntastic Cryptic Movie Quiz for Christmas. Hope to see you soon.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Mystery in White

Snow Stopper

Mystery in White
by J. Jefferson Farjeon 
British Library Crime Classics 
ISBN: 978-0712357708

I first became aware of Mystery In White sometime last Christmas, when one of the people I follow on Twitter posted a link which took me to an article where Waterstones, among others, were expressing astonishment that this relatively obscure novel (in terms of today’s writing celebrities), written in 1937 and reprinted fairly recently, was actually outselling a lot of modern writers and giving them all a run for their money. I don’t know why Mystery In White has been so successful decades after the writer died but, I’m guessing, it’s partly to do with the attractive cover illustration of an old steam train trapped in the snow at night and partly the inclusion of the strap line beneath the title proclaiming it to be “A Christmas Crime Story”. It’s nice to read something relatively Christmassy at this time of year and so I made a mental note to order a copy when that time came around again... so I could check it out this year.

In terms of the kind of book it is... well I’ve read a fair few books written around this time but they mostly tend to be either American adventure stories like the Doc Savage yarns or something like The Saint stories by Leslie Charteris. Mostly blood and thunder action with extremely witty dialogue and a fast, often globe-hopping, pace to them. Mystery In White is nothing like that in its genetic make-up, although it is very well written. If anything, it brings to mind the work of famous British crime writer Agatha Christie in that it’s a nice, gentle read with the set up and solving of the puzzle at hand taking the place of any action, for the most part. My understanding is that Farjeon himself was once a household name in mysteries while he was alive (one of his books was even inspiration for a Hitchcock thriller) but he seems to have slipped away from the limelight in the decades since then, it looks like to me.

The majority of the action in this one, for example, takes place in a snowed-in house, filled up entirely with people who are strangers to each other. Some of these people we are following right from the start of the story, as a group of passengers are stranded on a train in the heavy blizzard which gives the book its title and decide to go off looking for the next stop. However, the conditions are so bad that, instead, they stumble into a house, fully stocked with laid out tables of food and beds... but with a mystery laying in its heart. There is also evidence of something more sinister going on as these people are joined by various characters over the course of the novel, which takes place entirely during Christmas Eve and then into a few hours of Christmas Day.

The first thing which hit me about the book... and which won my trust even on page one... was the writer’s interesting, sometimes poetic, turn of phrase. He takes a page or so setting up the raging, unstoppable blizzard which has hit Britain and which is crucial to the set up of the story. For example, he starts off saying...

“On the 22nd it was still snowing. Snowballs flew, snowmen grew”.

...which I really liked... enough to note it on my iPhone for later use. He then continues, on the very same page, to picture for the reader the absolute unstoppable onslaught of the weather in terms thusly...

“It grew beyond the boundaries of local interest. By the 23rd it was news. By the 24th it was a nuisance.”

This is great stuff. He’s able to conjure up the worsening weather conditions of his fiction and the collected national attitude towards it in just a few short sentences... an economic use of words to set a scene if ever I saw one. He also, it turns out, has a very good grasp of things otherworldly... both the explainable and unexplainable, as it happens.

For instance, one of the characters is taken ill fairly early on in the novel and, when we visit him at a later point in the story, this person has gone into a dream state delirium which the writer conjures up most assuredly. He does this using very clear and concise descriptions of the dream, as it plays out in the young man’s head, which are extraordinary in their vivid mixture of logic coupled with a sense of the absurd. This is a really good handle on the kind of nonsense one stumbles upon in dreams, of course. The utter believability and ‘matter-of-factness’ of the internal workings of the thoughts bounding around the character’s head in this sequence lend it some weight and are definitely something that anybody who’s had a half remembered or waking dream will be able to identify with absolutely. I was very impressed with this little moment in the novel.

That’s the ‘explainable’ other wordly phenomena I was talking about but as to the other... well there’s a strong shot of the supernatural poured into the pages of this novel, that’s for sure. The main male protagonist, who takes on the role of the 'would-be detective' in the situation our small group of people find themselves in, is an ageing parapsychologist, of sorts. Applying logic and reason to strange phenomena while embracing the idea of spirits and ghosts wholeheartedly. Farjeon, it has to be said, weaves this supernatural element into the story and it somehow becomes ravelled into the mystery of the house and the death of the occupants (all stumbled upon after the fact rather than observed first hand by the reader or, it has to be said, many of the characters). There are several moments in the course of the novel where you might find yourself wondering if you are reading just a mystery or a ghost story but... well, for one thing, I don’t want to spoil the story for you and tell you where the tale takes you and, two, due to one particular element in the story which I don’t think is adequately covered by any explanations in the denouement of the tale, I’m still not a hundred percent sure myself. Let’s just say that it’s a pleasant blend of elements from both the mystery story and gothic literature (just a smattering) and I’ll leave you to discover the rest on your own.

Another interesting thing about this novel, and I was especially surprised by this coming from the pen of a male writer in the 1930s, was the strength of mind and resilience of the female characters, all of whom come across as fiercely independent whilst not sacrificing their femininity for the usual male traits exhibited often when women are pushed into the foreground of a piece of art... be it literature, painting or movie making. For instance, look at these words from the sister of one of the male protagonists to a showgirl, both of whom were in the train from the outset of the story...

“My dear, you and I are what are popularly known as ‘the women’ - we’re not to know things! David and I nearly had a row about it.”

This is cool stuff for a novel released in 1937 and although strong supporting characters like Pat Savage (Doc Savage’s cousin) were cropping up in novels around this time, there’s something about those two sentences that really push home the concept of the roots of the problems which give rise to the legacy of modern feminism, I reckon. It’s another example of the concise nature of this writer’s text that he’s able to sum it up so succinctly with so few words... which seems to be a hallmark of Farjeon’s prose, if this story is anything to judge it by.

At the end of the day, Mystery In White is, in fact, nothing much more than a cosy little, supernatural tinted murder mystery which has the novelty value of taking place over the 24th and 25th December and, in this particular case, also has the advantage of being extremely well written by a writer who knows how to conjure up moods and atmospheres with a modicum of raw materials. It’s light reading, for sure, but it is extremely comforting to go back to this kind of more simplistic and, perhaps, more clever form of writing and I suspect that this last element has a lot to do with its recent success in sales too. Word of mouth still carries a lot of clout these days... even if it’s done through social media. If you like the odd, very English mystery story and you want something which is comfortable and not too challenging in its style and content, then Mystery in White is a good thing to be reading over Christmas. I think I might try to find a Christmas mystery to read in the countdown to the pinnacle of the season again in subsequent years... thanks to this novel giving me a taste of possible things to come.

Monday 14 December 2015

Victor Frankenstein

De Igor’n Ally

Victor Frankenstein
2015 USA
Directed by Paulc McGuigan
UK cinema release print.

You know, I really wouldn’t blame any originally interested parties in seeing this movie if they passed it by after hearing the director’s promotional comments on this. I know I nearly didn’t. He seemed to somehow think he was doing himself a favour with his target audience by proclaiming Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s original novel Frankenstein, and I quote from many news articles reporting this... “dull as dishwater”.

This jangles the nerves and makes my blood boil for two different reasons.

Firstly, let us tackle the director’s apparent lack of being able to speak the King’s English. The phrase is not ‘dishwater’ it’s “dull as ditchwater”. I work in an Educational establishment at present and I am sick to death of people who can’t use English blaming their own lack of grammar, spelling and punctuation on the commonly held belief that language is a fluid concept and it changes over time. Well, yeah, it changes over time because dullards and half-wits can’t speak or write it properly and then other people who don’t know better also copy them. Think about it. Water found in a ditch is dull as a naturally occurring phenomena due to a series of geographical and scientific factors. It is endemic to the situation... whereas dishwater is something with which you’ve filled a dish. There could be anything in there and it certainly doesn’t have to taste dull or have a dull colour or texture. Honestly, people should stop using their ignorance as an excuse for what comes out of their mouths and own up to it when someone calls them on it... or when someone most likely doesn’t understand them because they’re not speaking the language correctly.

Secondly, I remember ordering a complete and unabridged copy of Shelley’s Frankenstein from the school book club when i was about seven years old (I still have it to this day). When I got around to reading it I certainly didn’t find it dull and I’m pretty sure a lot of people who revere this classic colossus of gothic fiction don’t find it so either. So putting down the wonderful source material in the hopes that it will make your product sound like a film which will appeal to the younger market (let’s face it, Hollywood wants youngsters to watch their films and raise the box office) is just insane and it will just alienate you from your potential audience, as it seems it has done on twitter (if my timeline of followers is anything to judge by).

So, okay, having said all that, it almost comes as a disappointment, in some ways, that Victor Frankenstein is a way more entertaining movie than it probably has any right to be. The thing is, yeah, it really doesn’t follow anything at all, almost, from the original novel... but if you’re going to let that kind of thing put you off seeing this movie then you’re probably not a fan of Frankenstein in movie history. Ever since Edison’s first Frankenstein movie in 1910 and onwards throughout the versions (and their sequels) put out by likes of Universal, Hammer and many more studios over the years, people have been doing their own thing with the Shelley source material, latching onto any number of elements and fusing it with their own take on the questions raised by the concept of going against nature and creating life from death.

So I’ve really got no problem with a story which takes the premise that Frankenstein (played by James McAvoy) allies himself with the aid of a circus freak, Igor (played by Daniel Radcliffe) who has as much, if not more medical knowledge than him. Actually, it is a stretch that Igor would be able to educate himself in the circumstances he finds himself in before the start of the movie but it seems credible within the context of the film which is all told through the eyes of Igor. Of course, Igor wasn’t even in the original novel but I’m guessing the director probably didn’t get that far into the story to find that out, being as it’s apparently as dull as something you might find in a dish, according to him.

When you’ve got performers such as McAvoy and Radcliffe, who have become masters of their craft (Radcliffe is surprisingly brilliant in this, even overshadowing McAvoy to an extent) then you shouldn’t have too much to worry about. Both sell this completely unrelated take on the story pretty well although, it has to be said, McAvoy does storm through the role like he’s high on speed for a lot of the time. Frankenstein is portrayed as deranged and McAvoy plays to that, sailing through the wordage at a rate of knotts, with Radcliffe not too far behind him. The Frankenstein character does seem a little over-adrenalised a lot of the time, though. It’s presumably a creative choice for the actor and it seems to have worked out for him here.

We also have Sherlock’s Moriarty, Andrew Scott (last seen by me in SPECTRE, reviewed here), as the Inspector who is hunting down both Frankenstein and Igor for reasons which make more sense once his religious agenda is brought into play after a while into the movie. He’s another, like McAvoy and Radcliffe who is very easy to watch and we also have the lovely Jessica Brown Findlay playing the romantic interest to Radcliffe’s Igor and, also, as the catalyst that brings Igor and Frankenstein together, in an impressive scene where Igor initiates a quick ‘dry surgery’, as the two work together to save her character’s life. It’s probably the cleverness behind the writing and execution of this scene, above any other, that won me over fairly early on in the movie.

I say that McAvoy plays the character in an ‘over-adrenalised’ way and I don’t think he could have got away with this kind of performance in some other films but, as it is, this film is so fast paced that the actors really almost have to run at speed with their performances here just to try and match the tempo throughout the piece. I may be wrong here but, because the movie staggers along at such a fast rate, I’m guessing that a heck of a lot of unnecessary dialogue may have been cut out of the movie as dead weight and we’re left with an edit that, while avoiding certain excesses that a lack of master shot use might bring, very much encapsulates a kind of pop video attitude and because of this, the film certainly doesn’t get boring. I'm guessing that this is very much a film which found its shape in the editing more than most.

Fans of Frankenstein's rich cinematic history may be delighted to discover that there are a fair few ‘fan references’ in the film (apparently the films can’t have been dull as either ditch or dishwater, then) and even the creature at the end owes a debt to the classic Boris Karloff portrayal of the monster in Universal’s 1931 Frankenstein and its first two direct sequels The Bride Of Frankenstein and Son Of Frankenstein (this also includes many mentions of 'Henry' Frankenstein, who was the main character name in the first two Universal pictures). There’s even a sense that it’s slightly filtered through Dave Prowse’s ‘look’ in Hammer’s Horror Of Frankenstein so that will probably please a lot of Hammer fans I would think, especially someone like Mark Gatiss who, I noticed, was playing an extra in the creation scenes towards the end of the picture.

So not much else to say really... Victor Frankenstein is a thoroughly, if surprisingly, entertaining movie. Fast paced with plenty of action... including a great ‘half chimpanzee homunculus’ rampage scene to get the blood pumping. There’s not too much in the way of anything other than standard camerawork throughout the movie, it seemed to me, but there were a few very expressive moments, like the first mesmerising scene right at the start of the film where we first see Daniel Radcliffe’s character almost forming out of the ether as some kind of German Expressionist legacy. All in all, though , there’s not too much to get upset about in this one... if you are a Frankenstein purist to the point where it puts you off seeing any deviation from the original work then, to be fair, not many of the movies made over the years would be for you. If you’re up for a punchy, ‘weird science’ adventure supported by a not too terrible Craig Armstrong score and some interesting performances, however, you might want to give this one a try before it leaves the cinemas. One thing I’ll say for it... it’s a lot less duller than ditchwater.

Friday 11 December 2015

Come Play With Me: The Life and Films of Mary Millington

Bird Of Play

Come Play With Me: The Life and Films of Mary Millington
by Simon Sheridan
Fab Press 
ISBN: 978-0952926078 

You know... I’m not exactly familiar with the work of model, porn star, sex entrepeuner, prostitute and Playbirds mascot Mary Millington... other than from her almost hushed but legendary stories from around the time I was growing up in the 1970s. I’ve never seen any of her movies, asides from a few minutes of some of her ‘early’ artistic (aka hardcore) work which can be found randomly streamed on sites of a dubious but easy nature... although I acquired two of her commercial features earlier in the year to watch at some point for a review on this site. I did remember two things though, which brought me to the point of considering reading this book.

One was the amount of British Sex movie posters I’d seen her featured in or mentioned on when I was a young lad of about 10 years of age. Posters for a lot of British sexploitation films such as Come Play With Me and The Playbirds, along with tonnes of non-Millington movies (usually sex comedies) were regular fixtures outside my local cinema as I used to admire the prominently painted assets of a number of talented young ladies on my journeys to and from various destinations. Also, there were many raunchy and related adverts pushing the same movies in the pages of Film Review magazine (anyone remember that?) and Time Out. Thus my awareness of the fairer sex, albeit a relatively skewed view, grew in leaps and bounds as the memories of the imagery haunted me in my sleep, taking up residence in my libido next to the likes of Caroline Munro, Valerie Perrine and Carrie Fisher.

The other thing which made me want to read up on her was the memory of a TV Documentary about her shown maybe 15 or more years ago, in which her general naivete and her fondness for checking up how much money she’d made in her sex shop at the end of the day... “Cashing up is better than sex.”... made an impression on me. So I was pretty happy when I found a copy of Simon Sheridan’s cool book, Come Play With Me: The Life and Films of Mary Millington, on sale at the Camden Film Fair earlier in the year with a cracking £5 price tag. This was money well spent.

As is expected, the book tells a tale of tragedy and naivete about a young lady who loved her mother, loved her lifestyle and who ultimately committed suicide at the age of 33 due to threats from both the police and the Inland Revenue. It also tells the story of how, through her love of sex and the free giving of it to friends and strangers at the drop of a hat, she became a staunch supporter, as should we all, of free speech and anti-censorship. This in an era of British history where we really did need to have both eyes open at the ludicrous and daily liberties taken by those in some small position of power from our personal rights and freedoms. Of course, as I write this, the irony that this country has flip flopped back again from a brief period of enlightenment to an even more draconian, intrusive, illogical and ultimately sinister brand of abusive censorship is not lost on me.

Sheridan portrays Mary, for the most part, as someone who was an innocent, just caught up in life. He touches on the fact that some of her business partners could perhaps be seen as exploitative of her talent and enthusiasm in the sexual arena but it also points out that she was always absolutely aware of just what it was she was getting into, embracing it fully and certainly, it seems, she never really let herself be exploited in any way... other than in the ways she most wanted to be. Her accumulation of wealth and the acquaintances she made are quite eye opening and, although a severe dent is put in her character towards the end of the book when a trait akin to a compulsive form of kleptomania is highlighted... ultimately she seems to have been a joyous and engaging young lady who cared very much about people and animals and who, perhaps, did not best express herself when she needed help in certain areas of her life... those which took her to her untimely death in 1979.

The book is both frank and playfully cautious in equal measure. For example, Mary’s sexual encounters with prime minister Harold Wilson, actress Diana Dors and several other celebrities are included in the pages of the book. Other people who played a part in her life have been left out or alluded to without actually being named and I’m guessing the potential publication of certain information in the book which is passed over or referred to more enigmatically... such as a ‘leading comedy personality’ who used to visit Mary for sex in disguise so he wouldn’t be recognised... might still be damaging or, at the very least, seen as defamatory, if they were revealed at the time of the publication of this book. Sometimes, if you piece certain information together from other parts of the book, you can kind of guess who some of these ‘friends’ of Mary’s were but, other times, it’s a little more difficult.

The book is really nicely written and it’s an excellent portrayal of Mary’s life. It also has a second, very large section of reviews discussing all of Mary’s non-hardcore feature film appearances. This section has some fascinating anecdotes and stories from the productions of these films, some of which were shot by prominent directors at the time (one of the main Bond film directors springs to mind in this context). It also touches upon films made after her death and which traded on her name and reputation. Come Play With Me was and still is, I believe, Britain’s longest running film showing at the cinema... running non-stop for years and making a tidy profit in the process. So you can understand why some of Mary’s past business partners may have wanted to capitalise on that after her death but, of course, this really is the part of the book where one can justifiably say that Millington, after her tragic suicide, really was being exploited.

This book was an absolute joy to read. Very sad, obviously, but ultimately a celebration of the life of its subject and, from what I can gather, a much more factually correct account than the TV documentary I mentioned above and certain other ‘biopic’ type films which were even farther from the truth. A really great read and a big thumbs up to the writer and to Fab Press for putting this one out. Not just thumbs up... but possibly other parts of the anatomy up too, as it’s fully illustrated throughout with shots of Mary and her colleagues. Certainly a recommended read if you want to find out the fascinating things which were happening in the early 1970s porn trade and how the participants in these things got their start. Really happy I stumbled across this one in my travels and, if you have any interest in the subject, it’s definitely one to pick up while it’s still out there, I would say.